Pandas, Penguins, and the Murky Line Between Black and White Hat SEO
If you’re a content marketer, you know the pressure of the SEO arms race. Basic best practices feel like bringing a knife to a gunfight, and you have vague fantasies about the nefarious tricks your competitors must be using to best you, and about an unseen netherworld of scammers, grifters, and manipulators who work 24/7 to game the system and deny you the fruit of your labor.
Good news! All your worst fears are true. You are not crazy.
But if you think that’s a rationale for going all thermonuclear war with your own SEO strategy, think again.
Here at Social Media Today, where contributors can pour content into our system in at least a half-dozen ways, we get a panoramic view of the search scam ecosystem. We see entire species of search tactics rise and go extinct, crashing like tsunamis against the walls of our moderation system. We bear the tortured-english probings of Asia by night, and the browbeating of western press agents and marcomm operatives fighting to “place” their clients’ “content” by day.
And we can tell you--the reality is even uglier than your paranoid imaginings.
The black hat SEO industry may not be the largest tech concern in terms of revenue, but it surely is by head count. Its agents have the operational advantage that comes from being unconstrained by scruples, and frankly, silicon valley can’t match their work ethic and can-do attitude either. Many of their approaches are automated, and they compensate for the inauthenticity of their product with overwhelming volume.
To highlight one example among hundreds, consider “spinning.” Spinning is when you copy a post and replace words with synonyms so that the copy appears unique to Google. The process is usually automated via applications that turn one post into hundreds. You may even have stumbled on a spun post before and thought to yourself, “this is weird--it feels like someone shook a thesaurus and this came out.”
But if you did stumble on one, it was by mistake. A peek behind scenes at The Truman Show. A glitch in the matrix.
Because spun content isn’t designed to fool humans. It’s lives at vast content farms that exist only to provide link juice--the stature Google affords to pages that are recipients of numerous incoming links--to yet other websites. So we not only have humans writing content just for machines (Google), we have machines (spinning software) writing content for machines.
It would not surprise me to learn that there are more pages in this untrafficked alter-Web than in the Web of our waking hours. Dystopia, anyone?
For most of us, tactics like spinning and it’s siblings “stuffing,” “cloaking,” “scraping,” “cloning,” etc. are clearly beyond the pale. We have legitimate marketing goals, and the consequences of being caught and penalized easily outweigh the dubious allure of a quick trip to #1 ranking.
But between the dark side and the light there is a lot of gray. Apart from the industrialists of black hat SEO, lone journeymen and women wander the countryside peddling “guest posts” and “100% original content tailored to your needs.” Most are refugees from the smoking wreckage of what were once careers in journalism, and they are looking to earn their daily bread from patrons eager to place a link on credible sites. To these freebooters, add reams that flow from the content departments of PR and advertising agencies, and even from old school corporate concerns experimenting clumsily with framing their marketing pitches in editorial trappings.
Out of this chaos come two big questions.
1. How can publishers cultivate quality content?
In a world where the vast majority of authors make their livings indirectly via the content they create, publishers must establish a new entente with contributors.
Our readers want the same thing they’ve always wanted: content that is informative, timely, accurate and entertaining. And that is exactly what the authors whose motivations are best aligned with ours--those who contribute content to establish visibility, thought-leadership and individual reputations--strive to provide. Happily, at SMT, these authors are our most prolific contributors.
But there are other authors whose goal is to build traffic on their own sites, or to sell their services directly, or to promote a product or company. The work they produce will always be in some degree of tension with our commitment to credibility and objectivity, but that tension is not necessarily disqualifying. Many such authors bring unique expertise and industry intelligence that our readers crave, knowledge that is a product of their insider status. It’s SMT’s role to insist upon transparency, to ensure that what is informational far outweighs what is promotional, and to provide innovative ways like our new “following” system, detailed author bylines, and rich author profile pages for authors to achieve their promotional goals in an appropriate context, as opposed to concealing their pitch in the body of their posts, or loading up their posts with superfluous links.
But the content curation process is one that defies hard and fast rules. How many links are too many? Can an author mention the product they make? And if so, how many similar or competing products must they mention to provide balance? Must all posts literally be penned by their purported authors? We’ve had U.S. Senators post on our sites, and I doubt they were their own wordsmiths. When is someone important or busy enough to warrant a ghostwriter?
In the end, we are left largely to rely on a smell test. When something doesn’t feel quite right about a post, when the links aren’t quite relevant or there are too many of them, when the info is superficial, when its author doesn’t seem to have the knowledge we would expect, we pass it by. Because the real problem with something in the pantry that doesn’t smell quite right is that is makes you doubt everything else on the shelves.
2. How aggressively should you, as a legitimate content marketer, push the envelope?
Content marketing is a long-haul strategy. You use it to build reputation and credibility, not to make next month’s sales targets. Therefore, you should think about the process in terms of investing.
Aggressive search marketing techniques are like aggressive investment techniques--like day trading. Certainly, Google’s attempts to make search results a perfect reflection of relevance and quality are imprecise and present opportunities for arbitrage in the short term. If your goals are short term, if you are very knowledgeable and attentive, and if you have a high risk tolerance, aggressive could be a smart play.
But beware. Because the Google cometh. And not with a tweezers, but with a mighty hammer.
The best Google can do is to make some thoughtful approximation of where the line between black and white hat lies, and then come in and start swinging. Avenues for appeal are not guaranteed. There will be no phone number to call with your complaint.
How close to the line do you want to be when that day comes?
We recently witnessed the kind of industry dislocation that can occur as a result of changes to Google’s algorithms with the release of Panda, and then Penguin.
In Mumbai, a mob of link farmers deprived suddenly of their livelihood rioted in front of Google’s offices.* Black hat SEO operatives scrambled to revamp their processes, but offered no solace to past clients who are now being punished by Google for tactics once overlooked, but now condemned. Here at SMT, we get a steady stream of requests from individuals and agencies that authored posts on our site published years ago, asking us to change the format of links or remove them entirely. We don’t respond to such inquiries, but we hear that other publishers are offering to make those changes on behalf of contributors--for a price.
Which brings me back to the investing metaphor. For most of us--those with the desire to build success that endures, those dubious of shortcuts, those without special inside intelligence or ESP--buy and hold is the way to go.
Social Media Today is a case in point. We generally rank #2 (behind Wikipedia) for the search term “social media.” People want to know our secret, and perhaps we’d be wise to wink and offer SEO consultation at a hefty hourly rate. But the secret is that there is no secret. We arrived early and have never thought about anything but serving our readers and contributors, and publishing the best content we could find.
And that’s our advice to all. Be good, be patient, and let good things happen.
* I really wanted to include examples of the pleading, smarmy, and sometimes threatening communications we get from black hat folks wanting to make SMT their tool, but there just wasn’t space. Still, for your amusement and bemusement, here’s a shriek of defiance that arrived in our inbox in the wake of Penguin’s release. Enjoy. And stay on the bright side.
As we know, Most of the blog networks hit hardly by panda 3.4. Google puts a lot of effort into detecting and disabling paid links and it’s really been shaking things up lately - with the recent Panda update and now the damn Penguin is upon us as well! According to the recent panda updates all the spammy link building techniques has faded out and only the real and natural stuff are giving the desired results.
Click here to see “HOW WE HAVE UPDATED OURSELVES AGAINST SEARCH ENGINE’S SLAPS’
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Link building team
--Link removed. If you can’t say anything nice... (Sit next to me!)--
I'm the CTO at Social Media Today, home of the world's best thinkers on social media.
For fifteen years, I've mashed-up content and technology to deliver great customer experiences in news, gaming, 3-D CAD, interactive television and distance learning.
A one-time writer and editor for Time Inc. and others, I made the new media leap in 1995 when I was selected to spearhead digital product ...
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